Saving Derawan’s Turtles

Derawan has no chic bars or dance clubs, yet the island boasts a very active nightlife. Well, our kind of nightlife. The only beat you’ll probably ever hear is your own heartbeat as you sit in the turtle hatchery and watch baby turtles emerge from their sandy nests. And nature’s DJ in all of this is John, the turtleman.

For the last two years, the Derawan local has been running the WWF turtle conservation project. With the help of two assistants, John spends his nights patrolling the beaches against poachers. Yes, turtle eggs and even turtles are in high demand, but John and his crew always try to stay one step ahead.

Night after night, they wait for green sea turtles to come up onto the beach to lay their eggs. Once a turtle has left the nest, the eggs are dug up, counted, and buried at a secret spot away from the main beach. After about 55 days, the hatchlings are taken out of their nest, counted again, and released into the ocean.

It’s amazing, and it all happens under the watchful eyes of travelers like us. In fact, John encourages everyone to take part in the experience. The only other time we had a hand in releasing sea turtles was on the Andaman Islands in India. There’s nothing more exciting than trying to count 100 baby turtles flopping around like Energizer bunnies. They never stop moving. Clearly, they only have one thing in mind – water. And that is where they are finally released at the end of each night.

But it’s a long way from egg to turtle and not every egg makes it. Egg theft is a big problem here. Considering that the average nest contains about 100 eggs and that each egg is worth $0.75, selling those eggs illegally means a big chunk of money to most Indonesians. (This, of course, begs the question why anyone would eat turtle eggs? Don’t think too hard or too long – oops, I guess I just gave it away.)

Even with poachers lurking, John manages to release 2,000 – 3,000 babies every month. The numbers may sound impressive, but only one in a thousand makes it to adulthood. And even then, they are not safe. Unfortunately, the stringent protection of turtle eggs on Derawan’s beaches has pushed turtle poachers to some sick and twisted extremes.

While walking on the beach, Tony and I found this dead sea turtle bobbing in the shallow waters. Sadly, it was the biggest turtle we had ever seen. After John inspected the animal, he told us the gruesome details. Poachers had killed this 65-year-old turtle for her eggs. As you can see in the picture, the poachers had literally cut the eggs out of the turtle’s hindquarters killing her in the process. The white tube trailing off into the water is the remnant of the turtle’s egg sack. Clearly, poachers find a way to get their eggs, one way or another.

There are about 20 turtle deaths on Derawan each year, but not all are caused by poachers. Some turtles are killed by boat propellers, others drown after getting tangled in fishing lines or nets. It’s quite sad.

On a related note, if you are wondering why there are no hawksbill sea turtles around Derawan, just take a good look at the local shops. They are available – dried and shellacked. Yes, there are protection laws in place, but it’s all about enforcement. With so much money at stake, there’s only so much John and his crew can do.

10 responses to “Saving Derawan’s Turtles”

  1. avatar Freda says:

    A dried and shellacked hawksbill seaturtle?
    The people that purchase these poor victims must not have a soul.

    The only satisfaction I get is knowing that down the road sometime, somewhere, Karma will happen.

  2. avatar carrieannmarco says:

    I feel like crying. So so sad. I wish I could tell John thank you. If you see him again, please tell him for me! xo

  3. Very powerful stuff, Thomas…. Thanks to you and Tony for telling this story. Like Freda, I am confident that poachers and buyers of these animal remains will get their just “rewards.” Is there a way to contact John to send a personal thanks? XXXOOO

    • avatar Thomas says:

      I didn’t even ask John whether he had an email address or not, I just assumed he didn’t because the Internet has not made it to Derawan yet. If it’s any consolation, we thanked him a million times for all his great work.

  4. avatar Morgan says:

    Thank you so much for your posts on Derawan. We nearly missed out on going there as we felt we wouldn’t have enough time in Kalimantan but reading your blog convinced us to make time to visit the island and it turned out to be the highlight of our trip! We stayed at Reza a few weeks ago, so we were really lucky to meet John and take part in the turtle conservation as well. If you’d like to contact John, he passed on his facebook details to us before we left(he has access to the internet on his phone)

    • avatar Thomas says:


      It’s great to hear that our blog posting helped you make the decision to go to Derawan. We have traveled now quite a bit in Indonesia and Derawan still is one of my favorite places. I’m glad you enjoyed it as much as we did.

  5. avatar marius says:

    Thanks for the Blog. Im currently standing beside John and showed him your blog. He was very surprised and happy. Keep up the good work. Greetings from derawan Island. Best regards, Marius

    • avatar Tony says:

      We’re glad to hear that John is still doing his great work. Derawan, with its amazing population of turtles, is definitely one of the coolest places we visited in Indonesia. 🙂

  6. avatar Lorna says:

    Great to read your blog post – i’m travelling up to Derawan today and would love to meet John and take part in some of his work! It’s been a few years now since the last comment so maybe this post isn’t active anymore – does anyone have his Facebook or email? Thanks

  7. avatar Thomas says:

    @Lorna: Happy to hear you are going to Derawan. Unfortunately, I don’t have an email or FB for John. But Derawan is so small that everyone on the island will know him. I hope you’ll find some time after your trip to leave a comment about the current situation in Derawan and John’s work today. Thanks, Lorna!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.